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The Texture of Change

Yoruba Cultural Responses to New Media

Even the casual visitor to the Nigerian capital of Lagos in West Africa is immediately confronted with mass media and its attendant technologies. On the road from the airport into teeming Lagos with its close to two million inhabitants, billboards advertise Kodak color film and black and white television sets that "think like color." Local hawkers ply their trade along the points of the traffic-jammed expressway. Their wares include Nigerian newspapers, pirated audio cassettes of best-selling foreign and Nigerian records as well as pirated video cassettes of recent films such as E.T.

The commercial streets of Lagos are filled with music shops playing reggae, rock, disco, Indian movie sound tracks, traditional Nigerian music and Nigerian popular "juju" music, itself a blend of indigenous and foreign music and instruments. While the shops sell the more expensive original records and tapes, small street stands sell the pirated cassette versions. Local newspapers chronicle the debate on the legality of pirated audio cassettes. The defenders of the practice assert that it "democratizes" music, making it more affordable to the average Nigerian.

Nigerian television is a blend of locally produced programs and imported British and American programs. Sanford and Son, Good Times and Soul Train are currently popular in part because they are considered to reflect Black American life styles. Many of the wealthier Lagos households have video tape decks and use them to both show their purchased video cassettes as well as to tape programs from broadcast television.

But what is the effect of this communication blitz on the traditional culture of the more rural areas of Nigeria?

Yoruba, who number about 12 million, are the dominant ethnic group in southwestern Nigeria. Inhabiting an area of about 40,000 square miles, they are predominantly agriculturalists with strong trade and craft traditions. The arts of sculpture, dance and music have flourished for centuries in the context of Yoruba traditional religion.

Yoruba art and religion are currently in dialogue with a variety of outside influences, including mass media. A few examples may serve to illustrate the nature of the dialogue between Yoruba culture and these new influences.

The Yoruba, considered by many to be the most prolific sculptors of Africa, are noted for producing ere ibeji, small wood images in human form representing deceased twins. These sculptures are carved when twins die since twins are considered to be deities and require ritual attention both while they are alive and after their death. The images serves as surrogates for the dead twins. They are washed, dressed and ritually fed as the living twins would have been.

According to Yoruba belief, if twins, whether living or dead, are not properly worshipped they can cause sickness and death to family members and barrenness to the mother. If they are honored, they are believed to bring good luck and wealth.

In 1970, one Yoruba mother was using a red plastic doll to represent her deceased twin. For at least the past ten years it has been the custom in one large northern Yoruba town to use photographs instead of wood carvings to represent their deceased twins. If the twins are of the same sex and one dies, the surviving twin is taken to the local photo studio and is photographed. The image is double printed so as to simulate the twins sitting together as they would have in life. This image is then framed under glass, placed on the family shrine and given the necessary food offerings. If the twins are not of the same sex and one dies, the survivor is first photographed as him or herself, then is dressed in the clothes of the opposite sex and photographed again. The photographer then prints the two negatives side by side, blurring the common border between the two so it looks like the twins have been photographed together. An earlier modernization of twin practices among Yoruba descendants in Cuba was reported by William Bascom in 1951. He observed that homes of twin worshippers at that time often contained toy houses for the twin deities "furnished with tiny chairs, tables, lamps, wireless sets, refrigerators and often electric lights."

But how has the recent shift from carvings to photographs been viewed by Yoruba who are not parents of twins? One young high school teacher thought it was not a good idea because the photographs could not be washed or dressed and in any event were not as durable as wood carvings. On the other hand, an 80-year old traditional Yoruba king held the opposite view. He said that the only reason that wood carvings were made for the twins in the first place was because photography had not yet been invented when the practice first began. As he put it, "A carving is just a counterfeit of a human being. A photograph is better because it's a carbon copy of the person."

This openness to new technologies and influences has also been typical of the Yoruba in some of their masking traditions. As new modes of transportation such as bicycles and Model-T Fords entered Yoruba life earlier in this century, they soon found their way into mask carvings. Today, the traditional themes still continue to be carved and danced alongside the more modern subjects such as carved motorcycles and airplanes.

In 1982 a funeral in a small Yoruba town featured at least 40 different Egungun masquerades and provided a glimpse into the way the old and the new interface in one of the most important institutions of Yoruba religion. Egungun masqueraders represent deceased ancestors, and masks range from extremely serious, dangerous and feared ones to those of the entertainment variety, often with strongly satirical content. All are worn by men even though female characters may be depicted.

In this particular funeral, the next to the last masquerade pair to be presented parodied a European couple. They wore bright pink carved face masks with squinting eyes and pointed noses. The inclusion of Europeans in the Egungun masquerade repertoire was noted as early as the 1830s so the subject matter itself has a history. However, both the costumes and the choreography in this instance bore the mark of contemporary life.

The male wore a maroon, double-knit Polyester leisure suit, the female, a tailored floral print dress. The male carried a ballpoint pen in one hand and a pad of paper in the other and had one arm around the shoulder of the female as they entered. He would periodically kiss the female masker on the cheek - mask to mask. Then he would pretend to write on the cheek of her mask where he had just kissed her. Sometimes he pretended to write something over her heart. In answer to what he was writing, the carver of the masks replied, "He's writing 'I love you.' You know, Europeans always put everything in writing."

The couple's dance choreography consisted of a formal waltz followed by a disco sequence, all the more humorous to the crowd because it was performed in an exaggerated slow motion dance style set against the frenetic rhythms of the Egungun drummers.

The final masqueraders to make their appearance depicted a proper Yoruba couple in Yoruba-style dress. Their dignified conduct was in direct contrast to the preceding promiscuous behavior often associated with Europeans who are considered too demonstrative in public. The Yoruba couple walked side by side wearing green face masks with Yoruba cicatrization marks, then sat side by side in a stately manner. The female wore a modern printed fabric with the motif of a drawing of a Concorde jet, several clouds and the words "Concorde Jet." The motif on the cloth of her traditional head tie was the overlapping double capital R, for Rolls Royce. Other women wore textiles printed with a photographic image of a Mercedes-Benz.

Yoruba have utilized other aspects of the mass media more directly. Obituaries, paid for by the family of the deceased, are broadcast on television with a photograph of the deceased flashed on the screen while the particulars of the funeral are being announced. This is but an extension of the customary newspaper obituaries featuring photographs of the deceased. Also, T-shirts printed with a photograph and the birth and death dates of the deceased are distributed at funerals. Some Yoruba are having funerals videotaped for future family viewing.

Egungun ancestral masqueraders have also produced hit records. The identity of the masks is kept secret; the real name of the performer does not appear on the record jacket. The Egungun masqueraders on these records sing in the distinctive typical Egungun gutteral vocal style said to be voices from the world of the dead. While the Yoruba are incorporating modern elements in the honoring of their ancestors, they appear to be doing so in ways that are consistent with important elements of their belief system.

Textile patterns and hairstyles often interact with government policy which is publicized on radio, television and in the newspapers. For example, in 1972 when Nigeria switched from driving on the left side of the road to the right, the publicity attending this event resulted in cultural expressions in many media. A popular female hairstyle and head tie style called "Nigeria Drive Right" both featured dramatic projections to the right. Popular fabrics combined motifs of cars, trucks and buses along with slogans such as "Right Hand Traffic" and "Traffic Drive Right." Popular songs invoking the help of Ogun, the Yoruba god of iron (and war) and deity of drivers, were broadcast on the radio.

In another example, when Nigeria as a former British colony changed from the British monetary system to the Nigerian currency of the naira and kobo in 1973, the Naira-Kobo hairstyle commemorated the event. A number of fabrics also came out illustrating the various denominations of the new bills and coins, updating older fabrics featuring the British pound.

Another recent fabric, reproducing newspaper listings of stock returns complete with graphs, closely resembles a page from the Wall Street Journal. Yet despite the number of newer machine-produced Nigerian textiles, traditional hand-woven fabrics still continue to be worn in many festival and funerary contexts.

Many events such as cultural festivals and installations of local Yoruba kings are currently being filmed by Nigerian television crews to be broadcast on the evening news. High status is attached to appearing on television. This fact has not been lost on a number of local studio photographers even in small rural towns. One such photographer offers the service of first photographing the client and then printing that image inside of a standard mat image of a console television set so as to make it appear that the client is on television. Another local studio photographer first photographs his client posing next to a television set and looking towards the camera. He then double prints the head and shoulders of the client on the screen of the television set so it appears that the client is sitting or standing next to the set while appearing on television at the same time. He also hand-colors the print, except for the image on the television screen since most sets in the rural areas are still black and white. While exact statistics are not available, it may be fair to estimate that anywhere between 50%-70% of the Yoruba population have at least periodic access to some sort of television viewing, whether public or private, so these photographs are generally understood even in small towns.

However, the practice of being photographed as if on television is merely an extension of earlier uses of photography in relation to status. For decades Yoruba priests and priestesses have had themselves photographed by local studio photographers in full regalia with wood carvings and other insignia of office. More recently, photographs often depict people posing with electric fans, automobiles, or television sets while wearing wristwatches and sunglasses, all symbols of wealth and modernity.

Yoruba photographers have used painted backdrops to bring modern elements to even the smallest rural towns. Clients can select to be photographed in front of painted scenes of skyscrapers, expressways lined with electric light poles, new bridges and Boeing 747 airplanes.

The Yoruba still have a strong sense of cultural identity. They support the position that societies have more gradually and selectively expanded to accommodate new influences are those which are ultimately the most resilient in the face of rapid social change. New art forms can be expected to emerge to meet the changing needs of Yoruba society. Whatever these forms are, it is fairly certain that the Yoruba will continue to assert their distinctive cultural identity in creative and often ingenious ways.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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